Cloudhawk gradually regained consciousness and opened his eyes to find himself lying face down in the dirt. The call of a bird chirped in his ears and he could feel something hairy moving around over him. One of them stretched out its tongue and licked him.
"What the fuck?!"
Cloudhawk jerked and scrambled to sit up. Eyes wide, his sudden movements caused a flock of bird-like creatures to scatter. Though frightened the creatures didn't flee far. They gathered a dozen or so feet away and continued to watch this stranger who had tumbled from the sky.
What fresh hell did he find himself in? It wasn't the desert, there were no ruins… it was some sort of forest.
Cloudhawk was stupefied by the view. Creatures were everywhere, thousands of them. Cloudhawk had never seen so many animals gathered in one place. He sat among them naked as the day he was born and covered in sticky fluid. A pungent medicinal scent wafted off of him, probably what attracted these creatures.
They weren't large. The smallest ones looked something like squirrels and were roughly half the size of his palm. The biggest looked like meerkats and had to only weigh a couple of pounds. There were birds too, owl-like ones that watched him from the trees and could turn their heads two hundred degrees. Those were a little larger than his fist.
Big or small every one of them was adorable and interacted peacefully with each other. It was a shocking reversal from where he'd come from since the wasteland was filled with vicious things that would sooner kill you than look at you.
Cloudhawk stood and noticed the ground was littered with nutshells and fruit husks. The forest had to be rich with food, no wonder there were so many critters. Perhaps that was also why they were so docile. At least for the moment he didn't feel like they were a threat.
"The hell are you doin'? Go! Fuck off!" Once they saw that Cloudhawk wasn't violent several smaller animals tried climbing on his back. He swatted at the fuzzy things to keep them at bay. "You annoying little shits! Keep fuckin' with me! See if I don't have you for dinner!"
You could take the boy out of the wasteland but never the wasteland out of the boy. He was as crass and grouchy as ever, and the woodland creatures had never encountered a beast so ornery. The offending critters bounded away a few feet then sat back on their hind legs to stare at him.
This place was weird!
The forest was lush and crowded with plant life, some of which were heavy with delectable smelling fruit. One tree in particular caught his eye, an ancient of the forest with creatures climbing in and out of holes in its trunk. It must serve as a home for many of the animals.
Looking around Cloudhawk saw it wasn't just one. Many enormous trees were evenly spaced among the area, every one of them at least a hundred a fifty feet tall. Ten people couldn't surround one with their arms stretched around it. The distance between them was very small but it was the canopy he thought was most intriguing. Each tree's crown was perfectly round and hung over him in a near-perfect half sphere. The ground was covered in grass and foliage, but as Cloudhawk spread his eyes toward the horizon he could see hundreds of these trees. They looked almost like giant mushrooms.
Each one the same shape, the same size, and evenly spaced…
What natural forest had such neat arrangements?
Animals crawled in and out of holes that, to Cloudhawk, looked a lot like old windows set in the tree trunks. He imagined this place could have been a village sometime long ago where intelligent creatures lived. For some unknown reason society had disappeared and animals moved in. Over time the place became a forest.
Cloudhawk's skin still burned and itched, residual damage from whatever those drugs were they'd kept him in. He absently scratched but paid the sensation little mind. Instead Cloudhawk set about picking a couple enormous leaves off the trees to fashion himself a makeshift skirt. He had to cover his dangly bits before the critters mistook them for berries.
Thankfully the denizens of the tree village proved harmless. There were plentiful nuts and fruits for them to enjoy so Cloudhawk felt as though he could relax around them. But he was still vigilant, for just because he didn't sense danger right away didn't mean there wasn't danger right around the corner!
Each time the stone had transported Cloudhawk it'd brought him somewhere different. The one thing they all had in common was that they were places that harbored intelligent life, or used to. But for reasons he could never tell they all seemed abandoned for thousands of years and left behind ruins that made him imagine what life must have been like.
Where culture gave up control, the wilds crept back in to lay claim. It was strange, Cloudhawk noted, he didn't see any meat-eating animals but there had to be didn't there? How else did the ecology keep in balance?
After wandering for a little while Cluodhawk came upon several strange bones scattered along the ground with tufts of fur. It seemed to verify the wastelander's assumption, something out here was the natural enemy of the peaceful forest critters. Whatever the case he had to find somewhere safe to hide out. Until the sedatives wore off, out here unarmed and defenseless he made an easy meal for any sort of predator.
Could he go back? Unacceptable! He refused to get caught up and become the Academician's lab rat again!
"Move! C'mon, out of the way!"
A flood of animals had poured out of the trees to look at this bizarre newcomer. They craned their necks from windows, hung from tree branches and skittered around his feet like a tide. Everywhere he looked were bobbing heads, no open path. Clearly they did not fear man, and if he'd wanted Cloudhawk could pluck one up off the ground without resistance. He felt like if he weren't careful he'd crush a bunch just trying to walk around.
Just then a faint pulse caught Cloudhawk's attention.
It was a pulse he'd come to be familiar with, the energy of a relic. Could one be nearby? When he transferred before he'd found two, so coming across another here wouldn't be such a strange thing.
Naked and alone, maybe this relic could help him out of the situation! Without giving it any further thought he tried to track down the source of the resonance.
It lead him to a tree unlike the others, twice the size with a doorway large enough for him to pass through. He crossed the threshold without hesitation. It was more spacious than he thought on the inside, and several thousand small animals had made it their home. Fruits and nuts were gathered up in piles like a hidden storehouse… wait, were the animals working together to store food?
The resonance was coming from one of the food stacks. He started to dig without regard for the painstaking work of the forest critters, popping a berry or nut into his mouth from time to time. They were juicy and sweet. These animals were lucky to be living here, Cloudhawk thought.
Digging through the stockpile was an exhausting process, but about halfway through he spotted the source of the pulses. Yet, he looked at it confounded. This was a relic? This bird egg?
The egg was gold, about the size of his fist, and radiated a faint light. Tenderly he used both hands to lift it from the pile, sure that the resonance was coming from it. From what he could tell it appeared to be made of gold and there were strange lines etched on its surface, likely decorative.
What he didn't understand was what natural living thing produced eggs like this? He was definitely at a loss, but regardless of his confusion this discovery was a good one for him.
Suddenly Cloudhawk sensed something was off. His noisy surroundings were suddenly a lot quieter. When Cloudhawk lifted his head to look around, cradling the egg in his hands, he noticed that it'd become dark. The forest creatures were no longer dashing here and there, but remained stone still exactly where they stood.
"What's this? They're asleep?"
No, they weren't asleep. As the light faded from the sky their eyes changed, as did their bodies. They started getting bigger, taller, and stronger. Tiny claws became keen daggers and fangs peaked from their lips.
"Holy shit! What the hell?!"
Cloudhawk gaped at the dark figures gathered around him, and they stared back with fierce glowing red eyes. They were special, these forests creatures. In the daylight they were peaceful and friendly, but when night fell they entered a murderous frenzy!
Hungry screeches and angry chitters rose all around him. All of a sudden the happy friendly critters had become flesh-eating monsters! Without warning they began viciously attacking each other!
A large number of the berserk creatures set their eyes on Cloudhawk.
"Son of a…"
He was surrounded and they came at him like an army of ants. They were about to overrun him when the stone against his chest shimmered with light and - poof! Cloudhawk was gone.
Cloudhawk hit the floor of the laboratory. With his head spinning he stumbled back onto his feet.
What the fuck was going on with those things? It didn't matter, now wasn't the time! Cloudhawk despaired to find that he was back in Blackwater Base, right back in the labs he'd tried to escape. Luckily it wasn't the tank room, it was somewhere different.
The mystical stone was silent. Something told him it was going to be a while, half a month maybe, before he'd be able to use it again.
As Cloudhawk was wracking his brain for a plan he heard noises coming from the hall. Guards on patrol, he figured. They heard sounds coming from inside and had come to investigate, weapons raised.
"What is this?"
Two large tree leaves had been discarded on the floor. Broad foliage like this didn't come from anything in Blackwater Base, they knew. Hell, there wasn't anything like that all through the marshes, or even Greenland Outpost. So how did they end up here?
Very much out of the ordinary.
The two guards were carefully examining the leaves when suddenly a figure shot out at them. It grabbed them by their heads and knocked them together, hard. Crack! Both of their skulls were dented from the impact. Cloudhawk wasn't sure whether they were alive or dead.
It was about then Cloudhawk discovered he was significantly stronger than he had been. His power had noticeably improved after days of torture. He pulled the two bodies into a corner and took one's uniform and weapon.
He had to find a way out of here, only he knew the lab was heavily guarded. There were bound to be several of the Academician's transformed warriors as well. He wasn't going to fight his way out.
He was under no illusions that his chances of escape were slim, but even if it was one in a million he had to try. He took a breath, calming himself for he knew the more he gave in to the fear the more irrational he would get. He had to plan his next move carefully and do whatever he could do increase his chances of survival.
Cloudhawk grabbed one of his captive guards and shook him awake. "Where are they keeping Hellflower? Speak!"
The guard stuttered and tried to speak though his brain was rattled. "S-she's being kept in Sector Two."
Cloudhawk chopped the guard's neck with his hand, knocking him out. Hellflower wasn't far. He slipped out of the room disguised as one of the guards and picked his way down the hall toward where she was being kept. Although Cloudhawk knew freeing her was likely hopeless, if he could find a way to save her there might be hope for him.